For the first time in its 800-year history, on 4 March 2021 the internationally renowned Basilica of St Francis in Assisi will open its doors for a live virtual guided tour, which will be accessible from anywhere in the world.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Basilica is one of the most important places for Christian pilgrimage and houses one of Western art’s most famous series of paintings: the celebrated cycle of frescoes dedicated to the life of St Francis, traditionally attributed to Giotto.
Closed for much of the past year due to Covid-19 regulations and currently only able to open for the local community, this event will allow visitors to travel virtually to the Basilica and is part of a programme of live virtual guided tours to museums, galleries, art studios and heritage sites in cultural cities around the world – all of which are either currently closed or severely restricted in welcoming visitors as a result of the pandemic.
The programme, entitled Cultural Travels from Home, has been pioneered by art historian Siân Walters, founder and director of UK-based tour and event company, Art History in Focus. In recent weeks, virtual visitors from around the world have been able to join the first ever live virtual guided tour of the great Doge’s Palace in Venice, with its masterpieces by Tintoretto and Veronese, the elegant Ca’ Rezzonico, home to the Museum of 18th-century Venice, and the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, exquisitely decorated by local master, Perugino.
In addition to the virtual visit to the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, also coming up are a live virtual guided tour of the exhibition, Raphael in Umbria, at the Palazzo Baldeschi in Perugia – one of the few exhibitions that has been able to go ahead to commemorate the 500th year anniversary of the artist’s death in 2020 – and the first live virtual guided tours of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan and the iconic Basilica of San Marco in Venice.
Plus live virtual guided walking tours of Moscow’s Red Square, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, Lisbon, Ljubljana, Florence and more. Siân has also collaborated with artists and musicians, such as the internationally renowned classical guitarist Morgan Szymanski, who gave his first live concert on Zoom for the company last November and will give another in May.
Cultural Travels from Home has been devised to enable audiences to enjoy cultural visits, lectures and experiences from home and, importantly, to generate income for cultural organisations and expert guides whose business has been severely affected by the pandemic
Siân, who alongside running Art History in Focus lectures internationally, says:
“Many of my colleagues are art historians and guides with whom I work when leading art tours around the world, so it has been a joy to be able to collaborate with them in this new way and give them employment at this difficult time. All of the museums we have approached have been closed to the public, and this has enabled them to raise much-needed funds at this time of crisis in the museum sector.”
“Each one of these collaborations has been a premiere. The project has been warmly received by the museum directors, so much so that many of them are now developing the idea further, either bringing their collections directly to the public through new, in-house online channels or opening up to collaborative projects with other organisations. We have received particularly warm support from the Director, President and General Secretary of Venice’s Fondazione Musei Civici.”
Having presented the first live online courses for The National Gallery, The Wallace Collection and The Arts Society in the course of last year, Siân was determined to extend the idea of online lectures to providing live, online tours. She conducted technical tests with colleagues on the ground to establish how a live streaming would work most effectively, and then contacted museum directors to request special permission to run live, virtual tours.
“It has been heart-warming to receive such wonderful feedback from our visitors and students who tell us that these tours are a “silver lining” during what continues to be a difficult time, and how magical it is to be temporarily ‘transported’ from all too familiar walls.”
“In particular, the feedback I have received from participants who, even before the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, were unable to travel to these cities, has been very moving. For example one lady, who has been at home caring for her husband for a number of years – before which cultural travel was something they enjoyed together – wrote to me to say that these events have become a lifeline. Another lady who has had a serious operation, meaning she will be unlikely to travel to Italy again, has written on a number of occasions to say how much her online visits to Venice mean to her.”
“We’re all looking forward to being able to travel again and enjoy experiences together in person, but I think it’s also important to keep these virtual programmes alive so that as many people as possible can continue to benefit from them and enjoy art and culture in new and varied ways. The past year has made us more aware than ever of the importance of the arts and their power to uplift and sustain us.”
Siân is delighted that one of the friars of the Basilica and the Sacred Convent (Sacro Convento) of St Francis in Assisi has said that he would like to welcome virtual visitors on 4 March, before local expert Claire Bour leads a guided tour.
Historian and tour guide, Claire Bour, who lives in nearby Perugia, says:
“These collaborations with Siân and her pioneering way of bringing the places and the works of art closer to her guests have been such a great experience for me and my colleagues, and really helped us appreciate the great opportunities offered by virtual tours. We’re now able to feel connected with visitors again, many of whom have told us they want to come to Umbria in person as soon as it’s possible to travel again.”
Statement provided by the Sacro Convento of St Francis in Assisi, who have granted permission for this broadcast:
The Friars of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi are delighted to welcome visitors on this very first virtual visit. It is wonderful to see how the imagination of Siân and the enthusiasm of Claire, with thanks also to technology, are overcoming the limitations imposed on us by present conditions, thereby allowing many people to enjoy the beauty, history and spirituality that inhabit this place. To each of you we repeat the greeting of Brother Francis: “May the Lord give you peace!”.
For further information and to book tickets, please visit:
Additional events are added to the calendar on a regular basis.
Image: The interior of the Upper Basilica of St Francis in Assisi © Archivio Fotografico del Sacro Convento di San Francesco in Assisi